Commentary by Ann Schockett, March 15, 2023
Whatever happened to connecting with people up close and personal?
Human interaction and interpersonal relationships have been deeply affected by new technology. The ubiquitous use of smart phones and the dramatic rise of social media sites have afforded us sensational technological innovations but also impersonal modes of communication that directly affect our very beings.
While enormous advances in technology make it easy to stay in touch at a moment’s notice, we increasingly choose to not orally communicate but instead text, email and post online, with curt, cute phrases and emojis or avatars to emphasize feelings.
The intimate art of corresponding by letter from heart to hand is vanishing with electronic means that even suggest wording to express sentiments. Are we losing the ability for dialogue on a personal level?
I wonder to what extent we have been affected. There have been thousands of things replaced by modern technology that we did not have even 10 years ago, and in countless ways, they have been blessings. We access news in real time and entertainment any time, measure heart rates and oxygen levels at home, let the car park itself, and ask devices as Alexa © the AI, complete with a voice that can now impersonate ours, what the weather is or what we need for the pantry. And, if we have forgotten anything, it is Alexa that — not who — reminds us by text and email. “Thank you, Alexa!” — “Just doing my job!”
As 2001’s HAL said, “I'm afraid… my mind is going. I can feel it.” Should not the vast majority of us be afraid about personal interactions going? How personally impersonal technology has become.
From online ordering and delivery of supplies, setting up registries for births through weddings, having condolences written and sent by robots, we hardly need to leave our premises. We eschew local mom and pop merchants who built this nation and need our support and instead, we stare at devices connected to every electronically driven part of our dwellings.
As for one of the most personal parts of life, seeking a mate, over 300 million people do that online, and can avoid messy breakups via text.
On the business end, the Zoom © video conferencing app founded a decade ago, has 300 million people virtually meeting daily in suit jackets and shorts. Businesses are selling brick and mortars with employees never again to chat at the water coolers. One young law firm partner was concerned, “During hirings via a virtual platform, I couldn’t fully assess how candidates were reacting to my questions. It was efficient but distant and lacking; my firm is returning to the workplace.”
Talking of ‘distant’, people of all ages spend hours a day enmeshed in playing games and posting online, and form bonds often with strangers with pseudonyms. Disappearing is connecting with those whose families lived, worked and played together for generations and, for children, learning the ropes of growing up and playing by life’s simplest rules through hopscotch and stickball with kids up the block. One has only to eat out to watch children on smartphones or tablets, mimicking their parents’ actions.
The old image of commuters listening to the radio while driving or reading the papers on the train or bus has been substituted with searching on cells and listening to podcasts, news and movies. But while yesterday’s radio was turned off and papers thrown away, today’s smart devices have become bodily appendages conditioning us to react immediately, putting aside whatever we’re doing. Their seemingly limitless abilities help us live our electronically linked lives by taking photos, doing e-banking, posting, selecting entertainment, navigating roads, ordering goods and keeping notes while eliminating personal oral communication.
I watched a couple spending ‘date night’ on their phones and uttering a scant few words. Maybe they were texting each other? They certainly weren’t conversing, holding hands or making eye contact.
Has all this hastened a downward spiral of relating to fellow humans, socially and professionally? Places of worship and events as weddings and funerals give us the option to stay home and watch each other from little boxes on a screen. I always feel something missing – something’s lost in translation between live and cybernetic — it’s hard to really “reach out and touch someone” when you’re giving a virtual hug.
When ill, we’ve been progressively relegated to tele-medicine during which physicians or physician assistants, whether we know them or not, ask us to take our own vitals, and seeing us from the neck up, make critical assessments sent via online portals. We have become grateful for even that since visits are at a premium. I join the frustrated since this is the antithesis to why a doctor chose the calling to care for patients and prevents the doctor from seeing an entire person in the flesh and definitively diagnosing a problem. Similar circumstances are becoming commonplace in other professions as well.
There is a distinct line between the benefits and detriments of the use of new technology in communication. Family and friends can instantly share heartfelt stories, blessings and achievements. However, online social media platforms easily develop into hotbeds of animosity with an abject lack of civil debate since people’s identities can be known or fictional. These impersonal aspects open the door to escalation of arguments since there is little concern to settle conflict.
New technology has rapidly changed our world, presenting the need for a self-imposed balancing act between the personal and impersonal. While we use evolving technology to engage friends and family, expand our reach with new relationships, handle business matters and navigate life issues, we must prevent technology from overriding our humanness.
We need to know when to put down our cells and step away from the computer, keep our physical communities intact, and ensure that the people who directly affect our lives understand that technology is not a substitute for personal interface.
I could continue, but I have a Zoom call waiting, Alexa just reminded me to reorder some items, and I am looking forward to playing outside with my grandchildren.Ann Schockett is immediate past president, National Federation of Republican Women